Irish Correspondent: Hill 16 and other lessons

By Peter Lenaghan

Croke Park in Dublin gleams when the weak, early summer sunshine peeps through the cloud. It is the first big day of the Leinster football championship. Nearby, betting shops and pubs are overflowing and the Dubs’ fans, decked out in sky blue kits, are lubricating their voice boxes; the old rivals are visiting today.
It is my first visit to a famous ground I had fleetingly spotted on the telly at home in Australia but had been constantly fascinated by. I alight from the No.16 bus, which took me from south of the Liffey to Dublin’s inner north. I pick my way through the crowd of men, women, children and merchandise sellers, with their two-blue flags, hats, horns and scarfs. The throw-in for the Sunday afternoon football game is still half an hour away when I walk through the gate, underneath the Hogan Stand. Like the establishments nearby, the bars inside the ground are busy and pints are being drained before they can settle. Men stand in groups of three and four, catching up. I buy a cuppa and head through the dark corridor and emerge at the top of the stairs, 30 metres from the pitch. The stadium towers above me, and already the stands are filling. The hurling match between the locals and the northern county of Antrim is nearly finished and is one-sided. The Dubs have it won and the contented crowd murmurs. I take a seat in the bottom tier, 30 rows back from the fence, at half- forward.
The newspapers have told me that the competitive rivalry between Dublin and Meath is fading, like Carlton versus Collingwood, it has been a few years since the contest shaped a whole season. In 1991, three replays were needed to separate the counties. The Dubs remain successful – they’ve been the Leinster province champions the past four years in a row – while the visitors’ last title came in 2001.
A fella in his 50s has also travelled to the game alone and is sitting beside me. He’s a Meath man now living away from the county, but remains a passionate supporter of the team wearing green and gold.
“Is this your first game?” he asks me.
“Well, it is here at Croke Park – it’s a beautiful ground,” I reply while surveying the three stands, the equal of any of the world’s finest. These stands take up three sides of the ground. Behind the goals to our left, though, is a terrace that’s half the height of the stadium’s seated sections and seemingly out of keeping with the rest of Croke Park. Already, it’s almost full of people wearing the home county’s colours.
“That,” my neighbour says, perhaps catching my puzzled look, “is Hill 16. They originally built that section out of the rubble left after the Easter Rising in 1916.” Reports suggested about 200 buildings were destroyed or demolished during the Rising as authorities tried to capture a group of rebels who declared Ireland independent of British rule and seized several important buildings, including the city’s main post office on O’Connell Street. The rebel leaders were executed. It was a bloody episode in a long battle for control of the island that still shapes Irish political debates today. Suddenly, the terrace’s presence in the redeveloped stadium makes a little more sense to me.
“And this stand,” he continues, “where we’re sitting, the Hogan Stand, was named after the Tipperary footballer, Michael Hogan, who was shot and killed on the field in 1920 during the War of Independence.” The Gaelic Athletic Association’s history says Hogan was killed when British forces – retaliating to an earlier attack ordered by the Irish political leader, Michael Collins – fired on the crowd at Croke Park. Hogan was one of at least a dozen people killed that November afternoon. This stadium carries more than sporting memories.
“Killed while playing?” I ask.
“He was.”
The game begins and Dublin dominates the opening minutes.  The supporters gathered on the Hill sing “Come on, you boys in blue” but Meath steadies, then rallies. Five unanswered scores put Meath ahead and bring the visiting fans to their feet – including my teacher, who screams, “That’s a magnificent score!” while waving his hands in the air. The home-town songs are momentarily silenced.
The buzz emanating from the stands is as urgent as the play and the ball moves quickly from end to end; 70 minutes of play is not a long time to kick a winning total. Players use handballs to run out from deep in defence and create an attack. The sky blue midfield of Dublin regains control and the home team is comfortably ahead at half-time.
The break is familiar and unfamiliar to someone raised on Australian football. Youngsters take to the field for a little league game, but competing for attention is a brass band, marching around the field. In front of Hill 16 the band plays and the crowd sings along.
Meath persist in the second half, but a wasteful Dublin does enough to secure an anticipated win and move on to the Leinster championship’s semi-finals. It is a team with a new manager and several young players still finding their feet. Meath will have to win their way through the qualifying rounds, known as the “back door”, to make it to the All-Ireland final. “Enjoy your stay in Ireland,” my neighbour shouts as we are swept out of the ground by 70,000 other fans, past “gardai”, or policemen, on horseback, towards the buses and pubs.

Comments

  1. Great story Peter. Ireland is a wonderful place.

    How many times did you hear the magnificent whisper out of the corner of an Irish mouth – “D’ya fancy a point?”

    When I was in Ireland that was music to my ears – and it came at the most amazing times. One bloke whispered that to me in church one Sunday morning – true story. When he saw a puzzled look on my face he hastily added, “When da church is over of course!”

  2. MC Horsedaddy says:

    So they built a big stadium where they go and drink heaps of pints then wander out on the pitch and hurl up? I think I’d be good at this hurling game.

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